At the moment, for all to see, the president doesn't have the numbers in Congress to move any phase-out bill. He's got only one Democrat clearly on his side -- the poltroonish Allen Boyd -- and at least a couple dozen Republicans who aren't ready to phase out Social Security.
So Tuesday he tried <$Ad$> another approach: going directly to local press in critical districts and states around the country, trying to sell phase-out. The president sat down for an hour long group interview in the Oval Office with reporters from regional papers, each from areas with high concentrations of retirees. They included the Tennessean (Nashville), the Orange County Register, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), the Birmingham News (Alabama) and the New Haven Register.
(Note that the president is having real problems with Republicans in Tennessee and Alabama.
Another target was Iowa. When asked about benefit cuts, according to the Times reporter from the Quad City Times, President Bush "appeared to suggest ... that the scheduled rate of increase in Social Security benefits is not in step with reality."
This is the coming tactic, which has already been the focus of a lot of press push-back, to simply say that the current scheduled benefit rates are impossible or can't really happen. Thus reducing benefits from those which can't really happen doesn't count as 'cuts'.
Here's how the Quad City Times reporter described that exchange in his follow-up report ...
âBenefit cuts is an interesting word,â Bush said. âBenefits are scheduled to grow at a certain rate, and one of the, one of the suggestions, for example ... was they grow at a, they grow, but not at a rate as fast as projected. You can call it anything you want. I would call it an adjustment to reality,â he said.
The president stressed, though, that he was not expressing a preference for what a Social Security package might include.
âThis is one of the many suggestions that people have made,â he said. âI donât want you to walk away thinking that I am picking one part of the solution mix or not. Iâm not.â
Another reporter in the session, William Gibson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, had this take on what the president said ...
Bush said the current system cannot be sustained, and he implied that benefits in the traditional program will have to be scaled back for those born after 1950.
"One of the suggestions, for example, is that they grow but not at a rate as fast as projected," he said. "You can call it anything you want. I would call it an adjustment to reality."
So, big benefit cuts if you're born after 1950 under the president's "adjustment to reality."
One of the big questions about the president's 'over 55 and you're safe' promise is how he can guarantee that when many of those people will be alive thirty or even forty years from now and he wants to pull lots of money out of the system.
Here was his stab at that: "I don't know how you guarantee (benefits for) somebody 30 years from now, but I mean, that is obviously a promise that can be kept and must be kept. When it's all said and done, we'll have to show people how the Social Security system is solvent. Once we can show solvency as a result of a permanent fix, I think people will be more comfortable that the promise will be kept."
Some reporters of course were a bit more fawning than others. The reporter from the Orange County Register, for instance, seemed rather easier to impress. "His brows narrowed and his tone was resolute," writes Dena Bunis, "when he talked about his determination to get this issue resolved during his presidency."
Each of these pieces were distributed widely over the wires.
More to follow ...